My Green Mardi Gras: What It’s Like To Ride And Not Throw Beads
Each year, people who live in New Orleans, and those who love visiting, plan their whole calendar around carnival season.
I’m one of them. For the past three years, I’ve had the honor of being a member of one of the krewes that puts on a big Mardi Gras parade.
We know years in advance when our parade will roll, and we’re able to plan accordingly, setting aside time to make the special objects we throw off our floats, and saving up for float dues and other expenses.
One major cost is buying throws — the plastic beads, plush toys, flags, umbrellas, footballs, and other things that we toss to the crowd.
Some of them are eagerly caught by the crowds below us. But as I’ve seen from high atop my float, too many are simply wasted.
Beads fall into the trees along St. Charles Avenue, where they hang for months, occasionally falling on cars or getting blown off in storms.
They drop onto lawns and the strip of median, known as neutral ground, that divides the avenues. And, far too many fall into the streets of New Orleans, and slip into the sewer system.
This past Mardi Gras, the city swept up 600 tons of Mardi Gras trash, actually a huge improvement over 2018, when 1,200 tons were swept up. The city has put on an effort to encourage people to collect their own debris, rather than leaving it for street sweepers to clean up.
Still, beads remain a big problem. Last year, 48 tons of beads were found in clogged catch basins across the city. There were 93,000 pounds of beads alone on a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue downtown.
While there are efforts by various organizations to recycle beads after the parades, many simply get thrown away.
So, as I walked down the aisles of Plush Appeal, the giant Mardi Gras supply store where many riders shop for throws, I made a decision: I wouldn’t throw beads this year.
One reason was practical. I shopped so late that Plush Appeal was out of the big bead necklaces that I like to throw, as opposed to the ordinary small beads that locals and even tourists eschew.
The other was the thought of all that plastic landing on the streets. I simply couldn’t justify it, when I’ve largely given up using plastic straws, take my cloth tote bags to the store, and recycle as much as I can.
So, I bought other things that I thought the crowd might like, loaded up my totes, and on the day before our parade, trekked everything over to my space on the float.
As soon as I arrived, I knew my haul was less than impressive. Fat totes of beads were piled high at nearly every spot.
On parade day, members of my krewe spent hours unwrapping and hanging up their beads on hooks that are attached to the sides of the float.
By the time we set off, the float was layered with multi-colored necklaces, save for my spot.
I had my teddy bears, and doubloons, little footballs, miniature umbrellas and other types of throws, but my space looked bare by comparison.
As the parade began, I watched as the shower of beads began. I watched some of the parade goers reach for them, but just as often, I saw strings of beads fall to the ground.
Beads, as it turns out, pretty much rank last in the parade souvenir pecking order. And unless they’re krewe-specific, they often bring a shrug, which drew my internal ire.
“Pick that up!” I wanted to shout. “Those beads cost somebody money! They’re going to end up in the sewer!”
Without a supply of beads to fill time, I mentally calculated how to ration my throws along the Uptown parade route.
They would have to last while the parade made its journey along Magazine Street, over to St. Charles, around the circle, through downtown and onto Canal Street.
I didn’t have enough things to continuously pelt the crowd, as the bead bearers did. I’d have to pick my targets. And so, I began looking over the crowd, in a way I hadn’t done in my previous rides.
I saw families, with kids on ladders, and college students holding go cups. Back from the curb sat older people, some in wheelchairs, who were mainly enjoying the view without vying for special rewards.
I discovered that many people seemed just as happy to make eye contact with me, and get a wave and a smile, as they were to receive a souvenir. I reveled in the joyful reaction when I picked someone out to receive one of my rationed throws.
Because my hands weren’t constantly in motion, I had time to concentrate. I was delighted to spot a sign with my name. I was surprised when a group of people on a balcony shouted at me, led by the med school daughter of old friends.
Along the parade route, I saw three more friends, and was able to land a throw directly into their hands. One sent me video and photos of me up top the float, clad in my wig and costume.
This time, I was not only riding in the parade, I was enjoying the parade, too, in a way I wasn’t able to do when I was thinking about which beads to unwrap and hang.
At one point, I ran out of the throws I planned to send down on that portion of St. Charles, and I simply leaned over the railing and watched my fellow riders.
It was like a ballet of color and light and laughter, hands in motion, eyes searching the crowd for the right recipient.
By the time we got to Canal Street, I had exactly three doubloons left, and I wondered deserved them. My answer came a top a bright red engine, where three firemen were standing, watching us go by.
I’m not sure I threw the little metal discs hard enough for them to receive them, but I got a happy wave in return.
At the end, I packed up my now empty tote bags and picked up my camp stool, basking in the enjoyment of the parade, and happy that my participation had been measured.
Of course, New Orleans will glitter for months to come with the beads that hit the trees. And there no doubt will be more flooding, in part because of the plastic that swirls under the roads.
But I did my tiny part to have a green Mardi Gras, and I gained so much in the process.
Micheline Maynard is a journalist and author who tweets @mickimaynard